Memorandum submitted by the Association
of University Teachers
As you can see, we have deliberately focused
our submission on one aspect of your enquiry, namely the section
of the 1993 White Paper entitled "research careers in universities".
The experiences and concerns of the 36,000 fixed-term
contract research staff (CRS) as the main practitioners of science
in UK higher education are of crucial importance to the delivery
of science policy in this country. As such, we feel it is important
that the Committee takes account of the issues attached in our
evidence during its deliberations.
The Association of University Teachers (AUT)
represents over 40,000 academic and academic-related staff in
UK universities, colleges and research institutes. The future
of UK science and technology is a key concern for the association.
We have been an active member of the Science Alliance, an informal
grouping of the main science unions, which has sought to promote
discussion on science and technology issues.1The association,
therefore, welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Science
and Technology committee's inquiry into the impact of the 1993
white paper, Realising our Potential. We also welcome the
decision by the committee to extend this inquiry to take into
account the 2000 science and innovation white paper, Excellence
and Opportunity and the recently announced science budget.
In this submission we want to focus on one aspect
of the 1993 white paper, the section entitled "research careers
in universities". As a trade union and a professional association,
we are especially concerned about the plight of the 36,000 fixed-term
contract research staff (CRS) currently employed in UK higher
education.2The association believes that casualisation undermines
career progression, creates great insecurity, erodes academic
freedom, and contributes to the levels of stress experienced by
academic and related staff.3In addition, the growth in the numbers
of CRS continues to be a major barrier to the recruitment and
retention of high quality staff, as the 1993 Science White Paper
Research careers in universities: "Are we
realising our potential"?
The 1993 White Paper was instrumental in focusing
attention on the training and career development of researchers.
It prompted the signing of the Concordat on Contract Research
Staff Career Management and the establishment of the Research
Careers Initiative (RCI), both designed to improve the careers
of contract research staff. These initiatives, however, have done
little to challenge the prevailing "contract culture".
University employers and the funding and research councils have
failed to reduce the scale of CRS. In fact, recent research produced
by the association found that the level of casualisation of research
staff in the UK has marginally increased since 1995-96,
despite the initiatives emerging out of the White Paper. A staggering
94 per cent of "research only" staff in 1998-99 were
on fixed-term contracts.5
Unfortunately, the problems of CRS have not
been a major theme in the recent oral evidence presented to the
Science and Technology Committee.6Moreover, the new Science White
Paper, Excellence and Opportunity, devotes just a single
paragraph to considering issues related to CRS. Paragraph 34 states:
"Young people need to be able to see that
jobs in university research lead somewhere - whether within academia
or to careers outside. We are concerned about career development
prospects for young people starting out".7
This reveals two misconceptions about CRS:
CRS are young people "starting
Research posts in HEIs funded by
external research projects, are transitory, the only long-term
jobs being "academic (lecturing)" posts in HEIs, or
jobs in industry.
Unfortunately, similar assumptions are made
in the recent Fundamental Review of Research conducted by the
Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).8This document
makes the assumption that CRS are young, inexperienced and temporary
"post-doctoral assistants" who are yet to begin proper
These misconceptions and assumptions should
be corrected and challenged. Far from being temporary and short-term,
a significant proportion of CRS have served in institutions for
a long period and are highly experienced researchers. For example,
an OST analysis in 1997, showed that, of those ex-research council
PhD students who had entered higher education as CRS, nine years
later 33 per cent were still in academia as CRS.9Similarly, figures
from a recent survey of researchers at Bristol University found
that 45 per cent were employed as CRS for 3-10 years and 12 per
cent for more than 10 years.10The most recent HESA data (1998-99)
also reinforces this point about the experience of CRS. 45 per
cent of all 35-39 year old academics were on fixed-term contracts,
and 93 per cent of "research-only" staff aged 35-39
were also on a fixed-term contract (representing 15 per cent of
the CRS total).11
We therefore, recommend a more realistic model
of how university research is delivered. The basic principle is
that there is essentially a single group of staffacademicsundertaking
a spectrum of research (R), teaching (T) and administration (A)
within HEIs today. HEFCE-funded lecturing staff may tend to have
a balance between R, T, A. CRS will do a much higher proportion
of R, but are still likely to undertake some T and A, including
training of PhD students. There will be fine-grained interactions
between all research staff, especially when working in research
teams. PhD students will also make significant contributions to
research and teaching output. The range of research activitiesblues
skies, grant applications, management, crux researchmay
be undertaken by members from either of the staff groups (PhD
students may also be involved in these). Both staff groups will
have a range of experience in various aspects of research, including
contributing to the RAE and other prestige ratings. Above all,
there will be CRS who have achieved many years of service within
HEIs, in the face of significant obstacles due to the casual nature
of their employment. This valuable contribution to university
life needs to be openly acknowledgedand properly rewardedby
the relevant stakeholders.
Prospects for improving employment practices
Paragraph 34 of Excellence and opportunity
concludes: "...and so we are encouraging the university
employers and the funding and research councils to develop:
targets for, and better monitoring
of, institutional performance in managing contract staff;
recognition and reward schemes for
the development of researchers;
promotion of relevant evaluation
and best practice models; and
better provision and co-ordination
of career guidance and staff development resources."
We would argue that this does not go nearly
far enough. All evidence so far reveals that HEIs will not develop
any meaningful changes to CRS "management" or "development".
The Concordat has produced virtually no concrete changes since
1996. The second report of the Research Careers Initiative (RCI)
makes for extremely disappointing reading. It reveals that progress
for better management of CRS has been slow or non-existent, with
many HEIs not even implementing the basic RCI recommendations.12
The assumption that fixed-term contracts for
certain academic researchers (ie those working on externally-funded
research projects) are inevitable, is also evident in the Excellence
and Opportunity White Paper: ("30,000 or more researchers
are on fixed-term contracts"). This fatalism is disappointing.
Not all the relevant stakeholders believe that the current reliance
by HEIs on multiple fixed-term contracts for researchers is inevitable.
Certain research councils, for example EPSRC, believe that CRS
should move on, either to permanent non-EPSRC funded posts in
universities, or out into industry in order to maintain a flow
of research experts into the wider economy. In discussions with
the AUT's CRS committee, EPSRC have acknowledged that HEIs should
be prepared to employ researchers on open-ended contracts.
One possible way of achieving this is to encourage
universities to pool income streams. This would be likely to involve
sharing the finances for staff costs at the level of the institution
rather than the current system which devolves staffing responsibilities
to departments, sections, or research groups. The current mindset
of university managers leads them to treat fixed-term staff as
a variable cost, whereas treating staffing costs as an essential
overhead would encourage employers to view employees as a long-term
and valuable asset. To achieve this would undoubtedly require
a paradigm shift in thinking among employers and research councils
in relation to research funding. Nevertheless, this should not
be such a daunting task for institutions whose underlying principle
is to move beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom.
Building a science and innovation policy for the
21st century: the role of CRS
In its review of science and innovation policy,
the Government should firstly ensure the establishment of an accurate
model of how research is conducted in universities, in particular
considering the role currently performed by CRS. Secondly, it
should instruct the national bodies responsible for academic research
(university employers and the funding and research councils) to
implement the RCI recommendations. One immediate initiate would
be for the Government to ensure that other funding councils extend
work undertaken by the Scottish Funding Council to improve conditions
for researchers. Thirdly, the Government should question all aspects
of the effectiveness of keeping such a large proportion of academic
researchers on fixed-term contracts. The association considers
that such contracts are wasteful and inefficient, let alone damaging
and demotivating for all staff concerned. This review is concerned
with effective delivery of excellent science, and so this is an
ideal opportunity to address these problems. Rather than assuming
casualisation is an "opportunity", this means challenging
the presumption that casualised labour is the best and only way
to deliver research in the 21st century.
1 See, for example, the discussion document
Contract or Career: a career in science?, Science Alliance, March
2 According to data from the Higher Education
Statistics Agency (HESA), there were 36,471 full time fixed-term
research-only staff in 1998/99 (out of total of 130,534 academic
3 On stress, see Association of University Teachers,
Pressure points: a survey into the causes and consequences of
occupational stress in UK academic and related staff, Spring 1998,
4 Realising Our Potential: A Strategy for Science,
Engineering and Technology, Cm2250, May 1993, para 7.27-7.31.
5 Association of University Teachers, Trends in casual
employment in higher education, http://www.aut.org.uk/pandp/index.html.
6 The one exception was the submission from
the CVCP. Even here they misrepresent the nature of the problem.
For example, there is no empirical evidence to assume 70 percent
of CRS staff should not expect a career in university research.
The memorandum can be found at: http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmsctech/466/0061402.htm.
7 Excellence and Opportunity: a science and
innovation policy for the 21 century, DTI, 2000, p.23.
8 HEFCE, Fundamental Review of Research Policy
and Funding, September 2000. See http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Research/default.htm.
9 K Sproston and J Field, Survey of Postgraduates
Funded by the Research Councils, OST, 1998.
10 University of Bristol Personnel Department,
"Results of CRS QuestionnaireDecember 1999".
11 AUT analysis of HESA 1998-99 Individualised
12 Research Careers Initiative, 2nd Report,
May 2000. For the first and second reports, see http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/aboutus/partnershipactivities/